Cream cheese and butter both are made from cream and are used to add richness and different kinds of flavor to food. They are often suggested as alternatives to each other, which may create the perception that they are more similar than they are. Here is a look at how they compare in this edition of SPICEography Showdown.
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How does cream cheese differ from butter?
Cream cheese and butter are made using different processes. Cream cheese is made by curdling milk and cream with lactic acid. The curds that this produces are then heated and stabilizers added. Unlike most other cheeses, cream cheese requires no aging and is ready to eat at this point. Butter, on the other hands, is made through churning milk or cream.
Cream cheese and butter have different flavor profiles. Cream cheese is mainly creamy with a very light cheesy sharpness and a thick, dense consistency. Butter is made up of the fat that makes cream rich, so creamy richness is the essence of its flavor. Salted butter will be slightly salty. At room temperature, butter will be noticeably less dense than cream cheese.
Cream cheese has a different appearance from butter. Cream cheese is a very pale yellow, almost white. Most commercially produced butter is bright yellow.
Cream cheese differs from butter when it comes to nutrition. Cream cheese has far fewer calories than butter for the same serving size, even though they are both high-calorie foods. The calories come largely from fat, and butter has more fat than cream cheese. Cream cheese has more protein, calcium, and vitamin A than butter. Butter is a better source of various vitamins, including vitamins D and E. It also has small amounts of B vitamins like riboflavin and cobalamin that cream cheese won’t give you.
Can you use cream cheese in place of butter (and vice versa?)
Cream cheese can work as an alternative for butter, in the sense that it is an equally good spread for bread and bagels. The problem is that cream cheese has a distinctive flavor that is very different from the butter flavor. Both are great spreads that offer savory richness, but cream cheese’s cheesiness may stand out in a way that butter won’t.
For baking, cream cheese can work in some recipes. Its flavor may allow you to place a new spin on some classic cake and cookie recipes, but it may be unpleasant in others. The ratio that you use to replace butter will vary from recipe to recipe.
Butter can stand in for cream cheese as a spread. It will provide greater richness to toasted bread and bagels, but with none of the cream cheese’s sharpness. You can use it in some of the dessert recipes that use cream cheese purely for richness, but not in those that rely on it for its consistency. For example, it can work in frosting but not in cheesecake.
When should you use cream cheese, and when should you use butter?
Use cream cheese when you want a creamy spread that is also dense and cheesy. It is the classic spread for bagels and the basis of desserts like cheesecake and carrot cake. Cream cheese is also great for making dips and adding richness to some kinds of spaghetti sauce.
Butter is a versatile fat that you can use in cooking and for baking. It is an essential ingredient in most cake and cookie recipes, and is a traditional spread for toasted bread and bagels. Use it to baste a steak or add richness to mashed potatoes.